It's the best time of the year - playoff season! First, a huge congratulations to UBC Thunderbirds Women's Volleyball and Trinity Western Spartans Men's Volleyball for earning the first ever USports Volleyball Championship titles this weekend. It was a weekend filled with great matches and amazing crowds in both Toronto and Edmonton! If you didn't catch the action live, you can still watch the matches here. Although the USports Volleyball Championships are over, playoffs are just heating up for our Canadians competing overseas. We caught up with Canadian Chris Voth, following his last match of regular season Saturday, and heading into playoffs this week.
Post-Secondary: University of Manitoba
Professional: Abiant Lycurgus Groningen, NL (2014-2016), Perungan Pojat - Team Lakkapää (2016/2017)
Senior National A/B Team: 2011- 2016
Chris picked up a volleyball younger than most, with parents who were heavily involved in the sport as both coaches and athletes. He fell in love with the game at a young age, having the opportunity to watch high level University and National team matches in Manitoba. "I started idolizing the players [at the games] and wanted to be like them." After graduating from High School he joined his sister, Ashley, at the University of Manitoba. Having an outstanding career as a Bison, Chris was selected to compete with the National Team at two FISU games in both 2011 and 2013, and has since continued to train with the National Team Program. He competed his first two seasons abroad in the Netherlands, where he earned a North Dutch Cup Championship and a Silver Medal in the Erendivise League.
Currently competing for Lakkapää in Finland, Chris and his team are excited heading into a best of 5 playoff series against the defending Champions and 4th place seed, Tiikerit. The match up happens to be against fellow Canadian, Steve Hunt, who has had an outstanding season in Finland this year. Chris joined the Finnish team half way through the season, helping them to a 5th place finish in the league, and hoping to help make a difference in their playoff push. Although Chris competed with a top 2 team in the Netherlands, the Finnish league is strong and the level has proven to be a step up. "There’s just a lot more experienced players and not as much of a drop off after the top couple teams." Chris is very happy with his decision to play in Finland, and is looking forward to competing in the upcoming playoff series. But the road to get where he is today has not been easy, and Chris has shown great courage and strength, becoming a role model for athletes all of the world.
In 2014, Chris came out as the first openly gay male volleyball player competing with the Men's National Team. Although his close friends had known for quite some time, coming out to his family and the volleyball community was a courageous step that Chris was ready to take. Support flooded in from the community, teammates and other athletes, but new challenges arose for Chris including setbacks and barriers for his volleyball career. After competing in the Netherlands for a team who was accepting and supportive, Chris was brought to a new realization of the barriers for LGBTTQ athletes when he lost a contract this past summer due to his sexual orientation. This setback sparked an even stronger desire within him to go after his dreams and to compete, showing other athletes that it is possible to be out and still be successful in sport.
"The experience in the summer wasn’t ideal, but it did allow me the opportunity to address the issues about sexuality in sport. Until that point, I would always read people’s comments that athletes don’t need to keep coming out and it doesn’t matter. In an ideal world it wouldn’t matter, but we aren’t there yet. The sporting culture around the world isn’t accepting and many athletes are afraid to come out. I’ve gotten many messages from athletes in different sports all around the world and it’s surprising to hear their stories. At the Olympics, there were 60+ out athletes, but only 11 were men and none were team sport athletes. This is a huge red flag for me and hopefully others. We have made progress but we are by no means close to perfect. There’s a lot of room to grow and I’m just trying to keep continuing that battle for the other gay athletes out there. Athletes are role models in the community and by changing the sport culture, I also hope that it changes the cultures outside of sport that may be a bit more conservative."
Chris has been an amazing leader, and is changing attitudes all over the world. Just a few weeks ago, he walked alongside his Finnish teammates and members of the club in Arctic Pride. The Pride took place just days after Finland legalized same sex marriage and the support shown by the small Northern community was felt by all. Being well known through the community, the crowd was chanting their team name and congratulating them. But as Chris said, although progress has been made, it is so important for us to continue to grow as an accepting and inclusive society. Chris talks below about what we can do as athletes, teammates and fans to help move us forward, as well as some of the amazing initiatives and organizations he is currently involved with.
"I do think there are a lot of barriers still. I think that it starts with the athletes themselves. From personal experience, a lot of negative thoughts come into your head when first discovering your sexuality. So if we can have more “out” athletes to set examples for others, that will help more come out. Another potential area for improvement would be the team. In sport, harsh language can really deter someone from coming out because they don’t feel welcome. Words matter. You may think you’re joking or that it doesn’t matter, but if someone is struggling in their own head, those words carry a lot of weight. It’s also scary risking being alienated from your team if you do come out, especially in volleyball because it is such a team sport. The teams themselves can also help by taking the initiative to demonstrate their commitment to being inclusive and accepting. The Canucks just had their Pride Night weeks ago. They don’t have any gay players but they still all wore rainbowed jerseys for warm up. That’s so great to see and I hope that other organizations follow suit. That’s one of the reasons it was so awesome to have our team in Arctic Pride, hopefully it will result in other teams in Finland and across the world to do the same. Lastly, fans can get super into the game. In the summer when I lost my contract, the team blamed opponent fans for the reason they didn’t want me on their team. I have played in many countries, including Russia on several different occasions, and haven’t had a problem. It is great to have passionate fans, but I don’t think we should accept discrimination. That is a tough one to regulate of course. You can see that there are potential problems at every level in the sporting world. It’s a complex issue and I don’t know the answer how to propel us forward. I hope that by being a voice for gay athletes that I can be a part of the solution. I’m hoping to inspire others to come out and to show that it is possible to be out and still succeed in sport."
"I have been a part of several different organizations since coming out. However, the one closest to my heart is Out There Winnipeg Sports and Recreation. When I first came out, I went to a gay drop in volleyball thing. I spoke about it a bit in my TEDx Talk, but it was funny because I wore ratty clothes because I didn’t want someone from the volleyball community to recognize me, as I was only out to a few people. It was a cool experience because I was terrified about being “out” but had volleyball to fall back on. I was able to just play. It was funny because I was shaking out of fear quite badly, which I’ve never experienced in a real volleyball match. This was different scenario for me. Perhaps that’s why out gay athletes statistically do better than their straight and closeted counterparts, because you strengthen yourself in the process of coming out. Anyways, the volleyball league falls under the Out There Winnipeg umbrella and because it was so important for my personal development, I wanted to offer that same experience to others. I am now the VP at Out There Winnipeg and have put a fair bit of money into it to try and get it off the ground more. We have a new logo, website and many new activities. Check out www.outtherewinnipeg.ca for more info."
Chris' next match is on Wednesday, March 22nd vs. Tiikerit, follow him on his Professional Volleyball journey here.